JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House of Representatives defeated an attempt Tuesday to boost benefits for the blind by cutting treatment money for welfare recipients who test positive for drugs. It was the latest in a series of either-or choices facing lawmakers crafting another tight state budget.
After several years of declining state revenues, Missouri lawmakers believe something — or some program — has to go in order to keep the budget in balance for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon proposed a 12.5 percent funding cut to public colleges and universities when outlining a budget in January. He later softened that proposal by suggesting the state tap money from a settlement with mortgage lenders. But the House, which serves as the starting point for the governor's budget, has decided to spare higher education institutions from any cuts to their core budgets.
As a result, lawmakers are looking to cut elsewhere.
The $24 billion budget plan given initial approval Tuesday by the Republican-led House would eliminate a $30 million program that provides medical care to about 2,800 blind people who earn too much to qualify for the state's Medicaid health care plan for the poor. Instead, the House budget plan would set aside $6 million for a slimmed-down assistance program for the blind.
Nixon has called the proposed cut to the blind aid program "dead wrong," and minority party Democrats in the House sought to restore additional money to the program.
On Tuesday, the House voted 102-49 to defeat an amendment by Rep. Sara Lampe, D-Springfield, that would have cut $1.1 million from substance abuse treatment programs for welfare recipients who test positive for drugs. The drug-testing program was approved last year by the legislature and signed into law by Nixon.
Lampe argued the state could afford to wait to implement the program because it was more important to assure the blind continue to receive health care.
House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, opposed the amendment. He said lawmakers need to follow through on their commitment to fund treatment for welfare recipients who use drugs. And he defended the decision to reduce medical aid to the blind.
"This is a tough decision, but it's one we unfortunately have to make to fund education and make our budget balanced," Silvey said.
The House gave initial approval by voice vote to the 13 bills comprising the state budget. A final vote was expected Thursday to send the budget package to the Senate.
Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, has said the chamber will restore funding for the blind program. A conference committee of representatives and senators would then have to work out the differences between the two versions of the budget before it could be sent to the governor.
Earlier Tuesday, the House approved several changes to its budget plan, including one prompted by the failure of an artificial sweetener factory in Moberly.
The House voted to shift $50,000 within the Department of Economic Development to hire "a due diligence officer" responsible for ensuring Missouri does not offer incentives to businesses that are likely to fail. The effort comes after some lawmakers expressed frustration with the department's screening process when the state offered up to $17 million of incentives for Mamtek U.S. Inc. The state incentives were never paid because the deal fell apart before Mamtek's artificial sweetener factory opened. Moberly was stuck with $39 million of bonds on which it has said it will default.
House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka, also successfully amended the budget Tuesday to cut in half the number of state labor department employees responsible for investigating complaints of alleged violations of wage laws, illegal workers or child labor. Jones said the investigators have relatively small caseloads. His amendment shifted the money to the public defenders' system, which has raised concerns about heavy caseloads in some parts of the state.
Democrats objected to the amendment, contending it weakened protections for Missouri's workers.
On a partisan vote, House Republicans voted 98-52 to reject a Democratic amendment that would have added $50 million for a federal grant to improve the state's computer systems for Medicaid. Republicans said the move could have paved the way for the creation of a health insurance exchange under the 2010 federal health care law, which they oppose.